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Taiwan ex-premier thawing ice between party, China

Publication Date : 05-10-2012


For Frank Hsieh, the first person from the very top of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to visit China, the pressure and significance of it all must be immense.

The purpose of the trip is perhaps not too political — to attend a bartending competition in Beijing — but the political implications are resonating across the Taiwan Strait.

Hsieh, a former premier of Taiwan and a former chairman of the main opposition party as well as a potential contender for the next presidency, is trying to break the ice that has been blocking the DPP's voyage across the Strait.

The ice is composed of a mixture of the DPP's hard-core pro-independence ideology and Beijing's supreme intolerance of even the slightest gesture toward Taiwan declaring a permanent separation from the mainland.

Hsieh's trip does not necessarily mean that the icy relationship between the DPP and the Chinese communists is melting, but without such a step, or any similar ones by other party leaders, it may never.

Tsai Ing-wen, the highly charismatic former DPP chairperson who lost gracefully in the presidential election in January, has given Hsieh her blessings for the five-day visit, which starts October 4. She described it as Hsieh's “brave step forward”.

Not everyone within the party agrees. Former Vice President Annette Lu has said that she would not make such a move if she were in his shoes.

And it is not difficult to imagine the anger of those die-hard pro-independence fundamentalists.

But the DPP cannot just rely on fundamentalists to win any elections, as they number too few and the majority of Taiwan's voters adopt a more or less centrist position.

Long before Hsieh's friendly approach, the DPP was already aware of such a trend. It toned down its pro-independence charter by appending it with a resolution stressing that Taiwan's future will be determined by its people — a standard call for self-determination.

Many voters may have been convinced although Beijing definitely wasn't. But with the help of a lot of other factors, the DPP managed to become the ruling party between 2000 and 2008.

It may be difficult to evaluate those eight years under President Chen Shui-bian, but cross-strait ties remained deadlocked under the DPP's isolation policy.

During those eight years, such isolation was still strategically tolerable. Over the last few years, however, the global situation has changed distinctly: China has risen to the status of superpower and so can no longer be ignored politically, economically or militarily.

President Ma Ying-jeou's cross-strait policy is definitely designed to address such changes, and the DPP has realised the need to improve ties with China after learning the lesson the hard way in the January election.

Tsai had been a strong contender to unseat Ma, but many, including the DPP itself, believe that the party's lack of a convincing cross-strait policy and friendly ties with China cost the opposition leader her campaign.

Hsieh's trip is a massive first step for the DPP, but it will be a long way before the communists and the DPP — if ever — can develop mutual trust.

The reality is that both sides of the Strait are unlikely to see eye-to-eye. Beijing will continue to stand firmly by its “one China” principle, while Taipei will continue to rely on a strategy of ambiguity when defining sovereignty.

For the DPP, it remains to be seen how far it will be willing to stray from its pro-independence cause and join the Kuomintang's game of ambiguities.

But at least, any contact with China will be better than no contact at all. It is not only good for boosting the DPP's election chances, but also good for Taiwan in general: its main opposition party is finally getting pragmatic and coming out its cocoon of ideology.


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